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Julie & Julia

Nora Ephron

Julie & Julia reminds me of action and horror films aimed at adolescent males — which is quite a trick, as I avoid teen flicks like the plague. But while teens are unlikely to conclude that Nora Ephron had them in mind when she so ingeniously stitched together a coherent screenplay from two very different books, the assurance of her enterprise is as absolute as that of any slasher film through whose trailer I've had to sit through. Julie & Julia makes no attempt to win its audience; on the contrary, it congratulates its audience for having had the good sense to show up. From the moment when Paul Child's blue woodie station wagon is deposited on the wharf at Le Havre — it doesn't actually say Le Havre anywhere, but we don't need to be told that! — Julie and Julia is a fête foraine of small, pleasurable recognitions.

This is not to suggest that the Julia Child part of Julie & Julia is an empty massage. Ostensibly, the scenes illustrate the Childs' various postings in Europe for about a dozen years after World War II — in charming old Paris, for the most part. But beneath this chronology lies the growth and focus of Julia's ambition. She is no more famous at the end of the movie than she is at the start, but she is ready to be famous — very ready.

Famous for what, though? What did Julia Child do, exactly? We might be forgiven for expecting Nora Ephron to tell us, but she declines. In part, the film begs the question by interposing Julie Powell's great admiration for "the French Chef": Julia Child must be important, or Julie would be crazy to devote a year of her life to following the older woman's recipes and re-creating 541 dishes. In part, the film ignores the question, by stopping short of the decade in which Mrs Child achieved culinary and broadcasting celebrity. Julia Child, the important cultural force, is only indirectly present in Julie & Julia, a sort of ghost hovering between the scenes in which the fortyish Julia finds "something to do" and the scenes in which thirty year-old Julie finds something to finish. You will have to figure out from some other source (if you don't already know) why Julia Child deserves this film's blazing attention — and that is the secret of its magic. Julia Child's fame, although conceded to be very great, is never explored or analyzed; it is barely discussed. Instead, it is blocked out, like the orb of the sun by students of the corolla, so that we can see interesting things about it — what led up to it, and how its impact was felt by a young writer in Long Island City decades later.

Julie Powell's half of the story is a tonal variation on the theme of finding yourself through mastery. As suits the story of a successful blog — it is, after all, her running commentary on the project of working her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking that Julie Powell shared with the world, not the soufflés and aspics that she turned out in her cramped kitchen — there is a great deal of ironic voiced-over commentary, and this device alone shows us how things have changed since Paris in the late Forties. (Julia and Paul Child read letters to specific individuals.) The world may be a little less glamorous, but it works better, and the fun is more comfortable. Always hatted during daylight, Julia Child reminds us of the rigors of respectability, which were second nature to her but at the same time something that she always seemed happy to throw over. It may be impossible to imagine her living over a pizzeria in the shadow of Big Allis, but the movie positions the two women very similarly: Julie is just as out of sympathy with her Blackberry-toting college chums as Julia is with the expat wives whom we never see at all. 

Because the film is based on true stories, Julie & Julia can't be dismissed as a fairy tale in the husband department. Nora Ephron's script wisely glosses over the great deal that her two heroines, Julia Child and Julie Powell, might not have in common, a great deal of which (such as Mrs Child's lack of appreciation for Ms Powell's Web log) would probably owe to generational dislocations. Among the things that they have in common, however, one is somewhat unusual: they're both married to supportive husbands. Cynics might doubt that there is anything remarkable in spousal support for culinary excellence, but these husbands go much further then applauding their wives' efforts in the kitchen. The amiable bedroom scenes with which Ms Ephron lightly sprinkles her film do not distract from the tremendous faith that Paul Child and Eric Powell have in the high-spirited brains to whom they are married.

It is unusual for marriage to play a strong supporting role in a movie aimed so conspicuously at women. Of course you must have a husband, Ms Ephron insists, and of course he must believe in you. The interesting thing is where you take life from there. This is, of course, the very principle on which men have been operating for centuries. As if to clinch it, both husbands are thoroughly uxurious, happiest at home.

If there has ever been a better-cast movie, I hope to see it. The three principals who are not Meryl Streep inhabit their parts as fully as she does, albeit with fewer chances for colorful display. Amy Adams's Julie Powell seems unaware of the coltish awkwardness of her idol's physical presence, but she matches Ms Streep's achievement at portraying an ambitious woman. Nothing about Stanley Tucci's Paul Child or Chris Messina's Eric Powell suggests that the two men would become fast friends if they were placed on the same plane, but neither is there a suggestion that they would not manage to get along. Ms Ephron has arranged it so that the two couples do appear to belong in the same movie in spite of the differences in their circumstances. As for the impressive roster of dramatic talents that fill out the large cast, there is not one performer who isn't up to the general excellence. Indeed, the only unhappy thing about all the supporting roles is that they weren't given a more spacious mini-series in which to show us more. Julie & Julia is properly a feature-length film, and would undoubtedly sag if expanded, but I was sorry not have more of Linda Emond (Simca Beck) and Erin Dilley (Judith Jones), both of whom turn in extraordinarily nuanced performances. If I've named only these two, it's because their parts are so good.

Now that I think about it, blocking out the French Chef's celebrity also helps to obscure the fact that Julie & Julia is the most flamboyant celebration of bourgeois life in the history of the American cinema. I mean this observation as a compliment, but I am sure that other commentators will not. (August 2009)

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